When SpaceX recently launched the Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral under the CRS-14 Dragon Resupply Mission, its capsule contained a space junk collector that will be tested in space around the last week of May 2018.
The RemoveDebris mission is comprised of the main satellite weighing 100 kilograms and a pair of smaller objects that will serve as artificial targets during the experiment. Known as CubeSats, these targets can inflate like balloons to imitate the dimensions of an average debris object.
Millions Of Space Junk Are Floating In The Earth's Orbit
Since the beginning of the space age in 1957, more than 7,000 satellites and 5,000 rockets have already been launched into the low Earth orbit. (LEO).
While these spacecrafts indeed helped scientists in gaining a deeper understanding of the Universe, they created a larger problem, which remains unsolved up to this day.
Rockets either leave stages or fairings behind, while satellites tend to break apart, explode, or collide with each other, producing fragments considered as space junk.
Based on the European Space Agency's (ESA) estimations, there were around 166 million debris objects polluting the planet's orbit as of January 2017. Some of them measure as small as 1 millimeter, while others are larger than 10 centimeters.
This 7,500 tons of space junk have long been a danger to newer satellites. Believe it or not, a fragment the size of a sugar cube can cause significant damage when it collides with a satellite that's a hundred times bigger.
RemoveDebris Satellite To Demonstrate Debris Collection Using CubeSats
After being deployed from the ISS, the main satellite will demonstrate its ability to collect space junk by releasing one of the CubeSats called DebrisSat1 and catching space junk with a net.
According to the mission's principal investigator Guglielmo Aglietti, the net is a more flexible option than a robotic arm, especially when recovering a piece of space junk that's traveling fast or has an irregular shape. Once collected, the DebrisSat1 will be cut loose from the net to reenter the Earth's atmosphere.
Next, DebrisSat2 will venture into the LEO to test laser navigation technology that will be used in tracking a fragment that's spinning out of control. By obtaining information about the nature and movement of a space debris, the satellite can plan an effective capture.
"We have a normal camera, and then a LIDAR, which uses lasers to illuminate the object and figure out what the object is doing, and try to quantify the parameters, not just looking and seeing it, but also trying to see the spin rate, for example," explains Aglietti in a report.
The RemoveDebris project is spearheaded by the Surrey Space Centre of the University of Surrey, with the main satellite designed and developed by Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL). Research was also partly funded by a grant from the European Commission.